Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 30, 2010

Jekkara Press

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:21 am

I recently got hold of an Android phone, so of course I’ve been looking through the free SF&F ebooks available. There are some really good ones available, and if I scrape up the time I’ll post some recs, but I also found something very odd which I need to post about.

To wit: Jekkara Press, and their gender-switched reissues of classic SF, fantasy, and adventure books. (All out of copyright; they seem to be using texts available through Project Gutenberg.)

In The Three Musketeers For All, by Alexandra Dumas, d’Artagnyn, Athys, Porthys, and Aramys battle the minions of the Duchess de Richelieu and serve Queen Louise XIII. Cathan L. Moore writes about Norawest Smith, and Joanna Harker is the guest of Countess Dracula in Brandy Stoker’s Dracula Refanged.

I’d normally approve wholeheartedly of what they’re doing, but there are a few problems with it. First, they’re straightforward search & replace jobs, and sloppy ones at that—M. d’Artagnan becomes M. d’Artagnyn, rather than Mlle d’Artagnyn. Some compounded terms (godfather, churchman) are left alone, but on one occasion a “nice” gadget becomes a “nephew” one. In one particularly humourous example, the Countess Dracula is described thus:

Within, stood a tall old woman, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about her anywhere.

Second, at least one of their books is by a living author—Harry Harrison—and though it’s entirely legal as far as I can tell, it seems a bit much.

Thirdly, many of the cover images are inappropriately pornographic. Not only is this annoying and offensive in itself, but rather ruins the general subversiveness.

It was a nice idea, but the publisher could have done so much better a job.

November 27, 2010

Walter Rhein – The Bone Sword

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 6:12 pm

I’ve reviewed this one over at The Future Fire.

It’s epic fantasy from new imprint Rhemalda Publishing, and quite frankly it’s dreadful; the only thing worse than the writing style is the cover art. I have accordingly reviewed it at length.

November 23, 2010

NK Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Filed under: rereading,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 5:12 pm

I first read this quite a while ago, and for some reason I was under the impression that I’d reviewed it then. However, when I went looking for the link to my review I discovered that it didn’t actually exist. Looking back on my first reading I suspect I knew then that I’d need to read it once more, with the ending in mind, before I could do it justice.

Once more was yesterday, so here we go.

This is a deceptively easy book to read—Jemisin’s style is so open and readable that it’s really tempting to rush through it, but that would be a mistake. There are enough layers and hidden motivations that so many of the story elements only reveal themselves in retrospect, and the story repays careful reading.

In some ways, it’s a classic Family Story, with the relative raised outside the Ancestral Home coming to visit, and also a classic story of survival in a Deadly Decadent Court. On the other hand, both are shown to us through a point of view that’s very aware of race & gender politics.

Fittingly, then, it’s about power structures: about the struggle for control of them, and different peoples’ perspective on them. It’s about a contest for control of the world, and two family squabbles. Nothing in this book happens on a small scale. Yeine, our half-blood protagonist, is a leader amongst the matriarchal jungle-dwelling Darr before she goes to join her pale-skinned mother’s family—the literal rulers of the whole world—in their magical palace high above the city of Sky. Once there, she has to unravel the mysteries of her own heritage and of the War of the Gods while keeping herself alive.

It sounds like a portal quest, but it isn’t, really. We don’t see Yeine leaving her homeland; the novel begins with her arrival at Sky. She’s very much the captain of her own fate—within the bounds that her heritage sets up—and the Wizard character (you know the one; the old man who knows what’s going on but doesn’t explain it properly, with potent but mysterious powers) is ambiguous at best and creepy-unpleasant at times. Incidentally, Yeine is mixed-race and nearly everyone else in Sky is so white they’re practically Tesco Value.

Instead of plot coupons and battles, the story progresses through shifting relationships, and through Yeine’s own understanding of her family history. Knowing herself subjugated, jerked about at the whim of her grandfather (significantly, the uncrowned king of the world), and stigmatized for her barbarian heritage, she allies with the family’s “weapons”—cast-down gods, bound to serve the Arameri family. Despite having the power to control and order them herself, she makes a point of not doing so.

This could so easily turn into the anti-racist Mary Sue, but it’s saved from that by a couple of important points. First, she isn’t Arameri-white; she straddles the fence between them and the brown-skinned barbarians (she uses that term herself) who are her people of birth, and so she’s neither Nobly Changing Sides nor using mixed-race privilege. Second, sometimes she fails. She does use some of the powers she’s been given, but not in the ways her family expect. Indeed, several times she has her unwillingness to do that thrown back at her—not a true Arameri—as an insult.

There’s a strict limit to how far I can evaluate the identity politics here, because I’m quite thoroughly white-male myself, but I’m getting a distinct whiff of Audre Lorde. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t at all academic or preachy—quite the reverse. Those don’t belong in fantasy, and for good reason. If you don’t know who Lorde is, you’ll enjoy this book just as much, but having that cultural context will add a layer of richness to the text in the same way that Marx does Miéville, or Rand does Goodkind.

In summary: if you read fantasy for action scenes & epic battles, this isn’t for you, but on all other counts it works well.

November 18, 2010

Alan Campbell – God of Clocks

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:36 pm

This is Part 3 of the Deepgate Codex series; I realised after it got to me that I hadn’t actually read part 2 (Iron Angel) after all, but I picked up on what was happening quickly enough.

From my several-years-old recollections of Scar Night I’d expected something fairly intense, with text as gothically baroque as the architecture, but my memories must have been in error because the style here is straightforward and relatively transparent.

What did stick in my mind was the imagery, and it’s amazingly inventive. The god of brine and fog sails a decaying wooden ship across the sky, with an army of deathless corpses hanging from the gallows below, and an immortal man dragging it behind him across the world. The god of knives and flowers rules a kingdom, and commands a legion of soldiers. And the god of clocks lives in a vast castle which exists, in strange and complex ways, across all of time.

Time travel is handled interestingly here—we see the classic looping effect, but without being shown all the branching points for the duplicated character. Mind you, it uses the Very Slow Time Machine method (ie. living through the intervening time, 1:1) for part of the trip, so that was probably a practical decision as much as anything.
It’s introduced very late in the book, though, and doesn’t really relate to—or interact with—anything that happened before it, so its potential feels rather wasted. That’s symptomatic of the whole book, really; vast numbers of cool things happen, but not in any real detail, and without emotional intensity.

I found the characterization a bit lacking, but that can often happen when you (effectively) start with Part 3. Some are excellently done (John Anchor, for instance), but others seem to be coasting rather on their initial introductions. I think part of it is the classic adventuring party problem; with a lot of characters together, it’s rare for an author to find things to do with all of them, and Campbell is noticeably better with two- or three-person scenes.

Overall, it’s a fun and easy read; I’d recommend the series to a mid- to late-teenager looking to move on from Garth Nix, or anyone who’s looking for an uncomplicated thrill to spark their imagination.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

November 8, 2010

Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:42 pm

Fforde is one of the most quintessentially English novelists writing today. His humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, without gag lines or signposted comedy moments, but it has a delightful quality of extended surreality, and utterly absurd passages that nevertheless make complete logical sense in context.

The premise of Shades of Grey is completely science-fictional, and follows a rather English tradition of dictatorship novels, more or less started by 1984. Fairly far (probably, anyway) into the future, society is seemingly happy but regimented and controlled by the sinisterly manipulative Government. Much of history has been suppressed, and nobody knows what’s really going on, but if our hero and his antisocially rebellious (but nevertheless extremely attractive) girlfriend can avoid being sent to the Mysterious Government Facility for reeducation, they may get to the bottom of things.

Fforde’s take on the System, here, is unusual and very English—it’s run not by a legion of faceless oppressors, but by The Rules, which are followed because they’re The Rules, and because they’re obviously right. (Well, except perhaps for the one about the spoons.) Of course, the Rules are labyrinthine and complex, and there are a great many loopholes and inconsistencies. For instance, even persons engaged in heavy manual work must wear a collar and tie, but shirts are optional. Libraries have been denuded of most of their books in successive Great Leaps Backward, but staffing levels are required to be maintained. Despite the mass simplification of the world, new cultural tropes grow up, and the human tendency to name & categorize is in full force—as ably demonstrated by Caravaggio’s Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head, and the Museum of the Something That Happened.

Society is organised chromatically, from Grey through Red to Purple, but it’s not a strict hierarchical ladder—the classifications are awarded by the amount of colour perception one has, and unexpected genetics can change a family’s status quite quickly. Since the society depends on all the colours, Red-perceptors have as vital a function as Yellows or Blues, despite a formally lower status, so there’s some interesting social crosslinking going on.

The way the colour technology & the influence of colour on society is introduced is entirely immersive, since the whole book is narrated by a smart but rather gormless teenager who already knows all of this and assumes we do too. As I’m rather a fan of this particular kind of worldbuilding, it worked well for me, and having a clueless protagonist is a very good way to introduce the truth about the world (well, something a bit closer to the truth, anyway) to both of us at the same time.

If you’re already a Fforde fan, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this, though it has far fewer pop-cultural allusions and a strongly SFnal ancestry. If you haven’t read Fforde, and this is the kind of SF you like (mindbending rather than -blowing, and rather funny) then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t enjoy this, there may well be something Not Entirely Right about you.

George RR Martin & Lisa Tuttle – Windhaven

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:50 pm

This is a paste-up job—three linked novellas, revised & continued from an original story in Analog of May 1975, The Storms of Windhaven. The first, which is essentially the original novella, is your basic story of a girl longing to join the elite hereditary caste of flyers properly. Their wings, made from the solar sails of the crashed starship which brought all their ancestors to Windhaven, are getting rarer every year as flyers are lost at sea, and Maris—the adopted daughter of a flyer, but forced to hand over his wings to his genetic heir—is determined to bring in new blood so that anyone can challenge a flyer for their wings.

She succeeds, of course, and keeps hers after all, while her stepbrother gets the musical career he wanted all along. So far, so Pern without the dragons.

The second novella, however, shows us some of the societal consequences of this massive change. The new academy, named Woodwings after a popular cautionary tale, isn’t thriving too well; it’s been seven years and not produced any flyers yet. Maris has returned to teach, but there’s a controversial new pupil, determined to win wings and become one of the flyers he hates, rejecting all their traditions. We get to see a lot of social ruptures on a very personal scale, and some vicious political infighting. Again, it ends on a happy, successful note, but it’s very clear that there are a lot of societal changes yet to come.

The third follows Maris still, to the island of Thayos, where she gets caught up in politics between the flyers and the land-born ruler. The text brings in the classic 1970s SF motif of the songs that change everything, and the power of musicians, but it’s also thoroughly problematized—it’s made clear throughout the three novellas that songs sung of heros may not show what happened, but it doesn’t stop them being true.

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:53 pm

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, where every play in the English language is performed, and the characters themselves tread the boards. Her bedroom is a stage set, and the characters & Théâtre staff are the only family she’s ever known.

Bertie makes rather a good YA heroine—she’s seventeen, impulsive but committed, possessed of brightly coloured hair, and extremely believable as a teenage girl. She has (as is of course obligatory) Relationship Problems, with two men competing for her affections. The Good Boy is called Nate; he’s a pirate, muscular and plainspoken, with a bit part in The Little Mermaid. Ariel (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) is the sly, deceitful, and intoxicatingly sexy Bad Boy, who is using Bertie in some plot of his own, but nevertheless seems to love her.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are Bertie’s unruly and chaotic sidekicks. They work very well indeed as backup, comic relief, and a good reason for Bertie to talk about the plot without talking to herself, but they’re also well-sketched characters in their own right; there’s a strong family dynamic going on, with Bertie cast as their amused and harassed older sister. Their first entrance, in Chapter One (“The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.”) is delightful, and shows the same quirky, subversively faux-Edwardian charm as the rest of the book.

The Théâtre is a peculiar one in many ways—with actors who will always play the same part forever, and who only return to existence when called, a lot of the usual theatre politics are abstracted away. We hear quite a lot about an ongoing feud between Set and Props, but there are no technical staff at all, and everything Just Works—I’m starting to suspect that Lisa Mantchev is a director herself! I’d have liked to see more of the Théâtre’s internal life & social structure, but then I’m a techie myself, and it’s not a long book. Mrs Edith, the Wardrobe Mistress (and the person responsible for bringing Bertie up, insofar as any bringing up happened at all) is rather a stock character, stern and obsessed with Bertie’s appearance but always loving and supportive. Then again, the rest of the Théâtre staff are largely stock characters too; I suspect that’s rather the idea, since all the world’s a stage.

As the back cover tells us, the Théâtre is under threat, and only Bertie can save it. With that, her romantic troubles, and the mystery of who her family really is, there’s plenty of plot to go around. It’s well-paced, too, with intriguing hints of metatextuality in the worldbuilding and in Bertie’s gift of magic with words. The writing style is lively, vivacious, and at times rather beautiful & magical; it fits the Théâtre well.

November 1, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold – Cryoburn

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:16 am

This is a new Miles Vorkosigan book, and it’s a big departure from the previous ones—unsurprisingly so, given the trajectory of the series so far. I don’t think I can review it without spoilers for the first half of the book, so let me say now that it’s good but takes work to read.

It’s set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity, and opens in media very much res, with Miles stumbling barefoot and hallucinating through a vast underground catacomb of cryogenic notquitecorpses. We learn quite soon that he’s on a mission to investigate a potentially dodgy commercial transaction, and that brings up a lot of thinly disguised metaphors. Kibou-daini is a world where nobody is willing to die; they expect to go into cryogenic storage instead, and await a cure for whatever ails them. Since they are not dead, they can still vote; the cryogenics corporations hold their proxy votes, leveraging them into huge amounts of political power. (There’s a reason so much of the architecture of Kibou-daini is Egyptianate…)

Economics comes in too, and there’s a lot of financial trading between companies. The frozen citizens, in fact, have become commoditized much like mortgages. It’s revealed, halfway through, that many of the people in cryogenic storage will not be revivable; much like the subprime bubble, what was thought to be a fungible commodity—and thus a good one on which to base financial trading—becomes abruptly non-fungible. I’d have liked to have seen a more detailed look at how this abrupt shift affected the world, though.

The other thing I’d have liked to see more of (well, any of) is the Vorkosigan home life. We hear second-hand from Armsman Roic about how Miles and Ekaterin, and their four-by-now children, are adjusting, but his recollections have the affectionately-stereotyped quality of a family reminiscence, and it doesn’t give either her or the children screen time. And I would have loved to see what Aral is like with his grandchildren, but instead we have another book of Miles regretting being away from his home & family.

What we do get is a pre-teen zoologist Urchin, his little sister, and their cryogenically sequestered mother. Which is as much as to say, a woman in a refrigerator. Whom Miles rescues. Well, she’s a woman; of course he has to rescue her. It’s what he does. It would have been very good to read some narrative from her, but instead we get some Miles, some of Jin (the aforementioned zoological urchin), and some Roic. It feels rather as though Bujold’s setting Roic up to be Miles’s Sergeant Lewis, and to get his own series now Miles has ascended to nigh-unchallengeable levels. None of the antagonists in this book seems to be in Miles’s weight class, which is sad; he’s always done by far his best work against the odds. As a result, he’s quite a bit less, er, engaged with the mission environment than in previous books.

Overall: recommended, but don’t expect the same as before.

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